Aunt Lois had always been Aunt Mabel’s doppelgänger, but on a January morning that swapped frigid temperatures for ordinary expectation, the housemates physically fused flesh on the front seat of their shared Toyota with the engine still idling, heater switched off, and radio tuned to a SiriusXM rap station. It must have been the percussive force of hip-hop blasting at sunrise from Bose speakers that drove a neighbor to call the police. Responding patrolmen reported finding the half-frozen bodies of two handholding, look-alike nonagenarians with not much clothing on, so that EMTs had to peel backsides off the vinyl seats like so much Velcro. Nobody in the family could account for the music.
If the relatives had fancied themselves respectful of other lives and choices by trusting in denial and fate, any remnant of human agency went out the window that day. It wasn’t really about the tunes of course, no matter police fixations. A range of other domestic attitudes began to skid as well on that glacial winter morning, but was the weather to blame, a failure of contemporary sociological constructs, or something else?
A day after the wake, Uncle William, younger brother of Mabel and Lois but no spring chicken himself, got on Craigslist and bid on a 1975 Porsche 911G coupe. He took a taxi to the bank to withdraw large-denomination bills, slipped the wad inside an envelope as if in a trance, slapped the envelope into the hands of the seller, and drove the Porsche home to park it next to his practical sedan. Uncle William stood a few paces back to regard the purchase, noting how the lemon yellow exterior and black Colgan bra gave his acquisition all the pizzazz of a zippy yellow jacket. Why did he do it? It wasn’t as if he stood to inherit a chunk of change from his dead sisters.
A cousin wagged his nose. A niece clicked her tongue. In-laws, pursing lips and aiming horizontal fingers at nothing in particular, figured the combined estate of the elderly aunts would total somewhere in the “low diddlysquats.”
Across town William’s firstborn, Bill Junior, spouted off about how anyone can do anything they please these days. Just that simple. Anybody can say or write anything, and it’s all just somebody’s opinion, no better than his own. To which his wife, Jen, replied, “Sometimes I feel as if I could pick up some grubby little bug just listening to you, Bill.” Jen borrowed the line from a British detective show on cable she’d been watching but felt it hit the mark.
Other family members opined that Bill Junior was probably spending too much time listening to talk radio and surfing the Internet, and that’s how he was getting the idea anyone can say or write anything. Not from books. Because on Facebook, you can say anything or, more accurately, post practically anything, and Bill did not read books within which pages sensible measures such as validity or reliability meant something. Bill Junior just nodded and said, actually, yes, maybe I am surfing the Web a lot, and furthermore, those ideas about Arctic ice melting and police brutality is (sic) actually made up too because, “Police aren’t brutal, people’s brutal.” Bill had a habit of letting verbs get away from nouns, both get away from reality, and using “actually” to excess.
William the elder, still licking Porsche wounds over slurs from kinfolk, went out in late spring and bought a top-of-the-line SUV with night-vision, prosthetic, extrasensory sensors for braking in case you were headed at a brick wall at 40 miles per hour in the dark. Even if a driver fell dead asleep at the wheel during a lunar eclipse, the gadgetry would stop the vehicle cold 100% guaranteed in crash tests 40% of the time according to the sales pitch, plus 13 airbags—just in case—strategically located around hand-stitched, lavender capra seats for gallivanting around town on run-flat, space-age alloy wheels, which William aligned next to the 1975 Porsche. Now neighbors could see three vehicles parallel parked in the driveway: yellow, black, and white, same colors as the flag of Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland, though William claimed no Polish ancestry.
Something else was going on about colors a few doors down. Most of the family agreed that Jen, formerly respected for caution, crossed the line when she showed up at Gerald’s house one morning and walked around back to coat his just-sprouting Big Boy tomato plants with blue, latex house paint without saying boo or what for, and ended up inside her second cousin’s pajamas, caressing Gerald’s you-know-what with her you-probably-can-guess.
After showering and driving to his office in the Department of Forestry and Water Resources, Gerald sent an e-mail to his superiors about a sample from the Browning District he’d forwarded to the State Laboratory. He’d expected the tests to come back negative as always—routine, no change—but they didn’t. Anything but. Gerald recalled some advice attributed to Socrates to the effect that, The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms, so he got on the Internet and had a look-see.
Ayahuasca [n., ah-yuh-wah-skuh] the Banisteriopsis caapi vine containing a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI). Also called yagé when brewed, the hallucinogenic alkaloid is used as traditional spiritual medicine by indigenous people of Amazonian Peru.
Peru? Hmm, Gerald thought to himself.
After dialing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta for the fourth time, Gerald finally connected with the Head of the Water Research Division. What was going on here? Hmm?
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding. I didn’t tell your State Lab people it was Ayahuasca. I wrote on the reports it was something like Ayahuasca. We don’t know what it is, but we’re working on it.”
Dissatisfied, Gerald daydreamed during the afternoon of distribution lines from the Browning Reservoir and of pretty little Jen. When he got home, his wife, Lindsey, screamed that Little Jimmy had been caught posting remarks again about how Feminazis and retarded lesbians should be skinned alive, as if Little Jimmy had ever laid eyes on either flavor of person except maybe on social media, but now the school was complaining and Gerald’s brother, George, had called to say that Jimmy was a sexist brat and why weren’t his parents watching what was happening right under their noses and under their own roof? Plus other mean and unbrotherly remarks nobody needed to repeat.
When he couldn’t make even the second loan payment and the dealer threatened to repossess the luxury SUV, William figured he’d go ahead and file for bankruptcy, what the heck. To which Iris, Lindsey’s sister, said that nobody was accusing anybody, but who did William think he was, fooling with those fancy-ass cars of his, which nobody didn’t need in the first place? And furthermore, those lazy-ass wetbacks and unwed mothers out there were sucking the economy dry, regardless of ethnicity, but everybody knew what race they were. Lindsey figured the frustration Iris expressed reflected upset over a third pregnancy of her, Iris’s, unemployed and unmarried daughter who was drawn to—in polite terms—unskilled and unemployed males of questionable character.
Well, so it was not altogether unexpected when William posted his famous remark on Iris’s Facebook page, and Iris unfriended Betty. Nobody was surprised either when Betty slammed the door in Lindsey’s face after she came over to lecture Betty again about eating gluten and red meat that was killing the air with all those cow farts and causing global warming—or at least a big chunk of climate change—and where the devil was Betty’s Christian conscience anyway? Lindsey did not get to say everything she intended because Betty slammed the door before Lindsey could get another insulting sentence out. A good thing too because everybody knew a person didn’t go around questioning Betty’s faith if you wanted to remain on your feet and, furthermore, careless words can make people love you a little less, according to Arundhati Roy who had written a book Betty happened to be reading.
That summer, climate change from flatulence or no, according to the timeless rhythm of Mother Earth and the Almighty’s glorious firmament above, the sun found itself extinguished every evening and re-ignited every morning, as Heraclitus liked to say (circa 500 BCE), even as bickering across backyard fences reached a fever pitch over who had—or might have, or had not—hopped aboard the bandwagon of baloney. Yet despite Sol’s predictability, mid-summer daylight itself seemed diminished by layers of atmospheric and mental corruption that unhinged tongues. Gerald noticed it. Uncle Bill did too of course. It wasn’t so much a meteorological smog in the air that clouded reason, but a disposition carried on the wind, the suggestion of something malevolent charging the sky and invading the cortex, a tempest of emotional discontent originating from just over the horizon to broadcast emotional thistles and shoot poisoned arrows, denting, darkening, damaging the soul.
Lindsey broke her left ankle in front of the house in early August, and Betty just stood there and snickered like the world’s most loathsome sister-in-law. Little Jimmy came home with a broken nose from a squabble during soccer practice over shouting “fag” at somebody, and even mild-mannered Gerald, Jimmy’s pop, lost his patience several evenings in a row.
Another mass shooting in Alabama ended with the slaughter of several dozen Army boys who had been donating spare time at a church fundraiser, and Bill posted a photo the same day of a gun’s inky muzzle pointed out the page at the viewer. Several thought the image and caption Bill wrote, “Just try it, towelhead,” disrespectful of both the living and newly dead. Then when Betty yelled at Bill Junior at the annual Labor Day cookout, Jen dumped the entire crockpot of baked beans on her—Betty’s—sneakers, and Lindsey left in tears, hobbling to the car as fast as that bad ankle of hers would carry her. Some days Gerald felt as though he were navigating on hands and knees a landscape of splintered dreams and shattered glass. Tinkle. Tinkle.
It must have been after the cookout that Bill Junior started talking about something or other in history we were better off forgetting, but even if we knew about it, it hadn’t happened. That’s what he said. The Civil War never happened. Actually, he said, you couldn’t believe anything that went on more than a hundred years ago—give or take a hundred—ever really happened at all because, well, who knows? History never happened, period. To which his wife, Jen, upped the antagonism ante with, “You are plain nuts, Bill. Nutzoid.”
* * *
In late September, people start calling it what it seems to be. A sickness.
Just before they show up to repossess the vehicle, Uncle William decides to test the extrasensory braking system on his big SUV, so he drives the thing into a wall and severs several cervical spinal nerves—levels C2 to C5—after impact with some 0.75-inch-diameter rebar. After which he dies and Bill Junior scoffs that false marketing and global warming is (sic) a plot of them liberals, everybody knows that, and he, Bill, intends to get hold of a friend who knows this Middle Eastern guy in the ghetto—er, city—and buy a sh**load of ammo for his 17 handguns and 8 unlicensed assault weapons because if the government thinks they can get away with taking everybody’s guns away from his Second Amendment Rights, well, those socialists are about to find out that nobody is giving up their guns to anybody no matter what those panda-loving a**holes think in Washington DC, USA. Period.
It isn’t just talk either. Eleven times in row Lindsey feels the pressure on her chest—thup, thup, thup, thup, thup, thup, thup, thup, thup, thup, thup—followed by a pause lasting maybe a minute. Then another series of rapid-fire thups sends shrapnel through the air just above the tree line, heaven help the birds a mile or two downstream. She walks around back to see what’s up and finds Bill, having unloaded wooden crates of ammo from the pickup, is testing his new anti-tank artillery munitions or whatever you call them. Moments later he barricades himself inside the garage and sits down to work some more on his manifesto about history amounting to a pile of hooey. When the police get a frantic call from Lindsey (that busybody hussy, according to Betty and Jen), they dispatch a SWAT team followed in no time by a van with two correspondents tripping over themselves and a film crew panting for a lead story to feature on the evening news.
But only on a single, local TV station because turmoil appears to be spreading like avian flu courting tuberculosis, and with so much upheaval to cover, regional anchorpersons sound as confused as their audiences out there in TV-land. Disorder is reported not only in the vicinity but statewide, and not just throughout their home state but also in other states. Buildings are burning. An elementary school somewhere or other is trashed. In fact, about the only thing on Eyewitness News channels that night is what people are beginning to think of as “The Madness” with a capital Tee and capital Em.
There are whispers. Ugly rumors. It is the first time an on-air commentator resorts to the expression “End time.” Survivalists prick up their ears and head for hardware stores.
“This is an outrage,” one silver-haired Senator from Pennsylvania despairs, though he doesn’t specify to what his indefinite referent refers.
“It’s an assault on American values,” a congressman shouts to a mostly empty House of Representatives, where absent members do not have the courtesy to call in sick any more.
“Enough is enough!” newspaper columnists demand of their readers.
More incendiary rhetoric by politicians might have been heard, but many of them are relaxing in restaurants and private clubs across the land, sipping flavorful Domaine Leroy Latricieres–Chambertin Grand Cru and comparable vintages courtesy of military–defense lobbyists who sniff a windfall on the … wind.
“It’s in Lake Mead and the Folsom Reservoir in California.” This is what Gerald learns from the CDC expert. “It’s in the Mississippi River and Lake Erie. It’s everywhere. It’s in bottled water.”
“Sure. Even bottled water comes from water, you know.”
Oh geez, Gerald thinks to himself in his office. “We’re screwed,” he whispers into his new smartphone that comes with a hefty upgrade surcharge for the first 12 months, to say nothing of hidden fees.
“Some people are calling it iWater. Pha!”
“Pha? What’s that mean?” Gerald asks the CDC guy.
“Just don’t jump to conclusions. That’s all I’m saying.”
Ink slingers concoct Star Wars narratives, and though calmer voices of acknowledged scholars urge restraint, nobody mentions Thomas Mann’s (Death in Venice) observation that, “…there is nothing so distasteful as being restored to oneself when one is beside oneself,” the author having a terrific way with words even when at his most Germanic and depressing.
“Have you noticed,” little Jimmy asks his best friend at school, “how my dad has gotten a little … ?” Jimmy cannot finish the question properly because he doesn’t know the right word to use, being a child of the public education system in America. The word is “paranoid.” The next morning, Little Jimmy hides in the attic behind some boxes, trembling at the idea his high school coach is about to come a-knocking on the front door any minute with a butcher knife in hand, hungry for a pound of flesh from “that little s**t-fu**ker” who is causing so much havoc at school. Or maybe the boy’s anxiety has more to do with the fact that Jimmy just watched the original version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” last night while sipping several glasses of Kool-Aid. Who’s to say?
* * *
Prayers evidently go unheard, and only one explanation makes sense in the minds of those who struggle through it. Aunts Mabel and Lois freezing to the beat of rap music? Or hip-hop, or whatever? What’s up with that? Uncle William’s sudden attraction to luxury cars and Bill Junior’s disavowal of history? Jen’s idea that tomatoes ought to be blue? Little Jimmy’s phobic bigotry? Obsessions with firearms and the erosion of personal liberties?
It isn’t real of course, Gerald hears on the phone, but then, “The situation is also worse in some ways than you think,” according to the CDC man who tells Gerald iWater is shorthand for ISIS-contaminated drinking water. And although Gerald senses a contradiction and feels certain the expert from Atlanta is privy to inside information, and maybe he is forced to speak in riddles for national security reasons, the man only repeats his personal opinion that the actual culprit, the real deal is, (quote):
… a metabolic byproduct of a widespread algal bloom. That’s my thinking at the moment,
(unquote), whatever that’s supposed to mean.
Homeland Security honchos and epidemiologists agree, according to attractively groomed TV personalities who identify themselves as “subject-matter experts,” despite having never completing a course in the biological or physical sciences. Chemical warfare has officially gone global; a designer drug with hallucinogenic and possibly neurotoxic properties concocted in a secret lab—probably located in a god-forsaken cave and definitely, absolutely, certainly funded by terrorists—has found it’s way into the drinking water supply of America. Well, not “found its way” so much, but has been intentionally dispersed in fresh water throughout the Land of the Free by black-hood-wearing lunatics who would destroy Our Way of Life!
Is it infectious? Who knows and who cares because it’s in everybody’s drinking water for heaven’s sake, which is the President’s fault. No question. Pharmaceutical companies are in profit-making cahoots with banks, and the BLM is run by a bunch of know-nothing intellectuals. Homeless people started this epidemic of hatred, positively, plus those illegal vermin getting handouts and screwing all over the place like rabbits. But does any of it even matter any more? The stuff doesn’t kill you; worse, iWater drives you mad and makes you see things that are not there. Like climate change. Like the theory—which is to say, hoax—of evolution, or like the idea of guns killing people when every fool knows they don’t. Makes you think things and smell things like prairie flatus on the rampage. A person can go without food for weeks, but not without water. Everybody knows that. Every god-fearing citizen of the United States of America stands to become infected. No, is infected, like those Indians way back in the olden days when we gave them the plague or something worse even though nobody meant to do it deliberately, and all that crap is a lie anyway made up by those rich-bastard, casino-owning redskins sucking paychecks from the pores of honest working men and women fighting to make a decent living across the country and getting taken to the cleaners by outrageous taxes. Disgusting.
* * *
Now it is 8 a.m. sharp on the first Tuesday in October, and the CDC expert updates his assessment for Gerald. More talk about algal blooms, resulting from above-normal air temperatures and high levels of dissolved nutrients from farmland fertilizers in all eight U.S. climate zones specified by the IECC. Gerald scribbles notes ending with a series of question marks.
“The IECC? You mean this is about global warming? What are the medical symptoms when ingested then?”
Mr. CDC does not spell out the acronym or address the climate change question and simply answers, “Diarrhea.”
“That’s all? That’s it?”
Gerald slips his notes in a desk drawer and folds hands behind his head. What to believe?
* * *
If words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality (Edgar Allan Poe), mid-October brings a new round of observable horrors. Churchgoers and agnostics give each other sore throats out on the streets, yell in all caps on Facebook or blame fiends and savages somewhere out there or down the block. Housewives deplete supermarket shelves of canned soups high in pre-ISIS water content, and bathroom tissue for that other problem, while hubbies stockpile machine guns in closets. Chinese restaurants from the Dakotas to Arkansas go belly up following rumors of “those pagans” deliberately doping with laxatives their lo mein and egg foo young. Gangs of teenage white boys take to burping out loud on city busses and snorting at their cleverness.
After decades of gridlock in the United States Congress, elected legislators take a break for a photo op to stand proudly as one, One Nation, shoulder-to-shoulder on the steps of the Capitol Building—liberals to the left and conservatives on the right—with a gap of a few feet down a symbolic no-man’s-land middle. Lapel pins in the shape of American flags glint in the sun, and just as a photographer is about to snap the historic picture, statesmen standing in the center reach across the gap to shake hands with former antagonists from across the aisle. Click, good shot. United we stand.
At 6 p.m. Eastern Daylight Saving Time on November 2 (yes, it’s still Daylight Saving Time in November, thanks to those idiot bureaucrats) the nation’s citizens draw a collective breath of anticipation as the official announcement is made on TV about iWater. Millions of registered voters order another round in bars because you can still trust liquor, thank goodness. Hold the ice.
And then the eagerly anticipated words: “… nothing less than total, full-out, unrelenting, nonstop war!”
Hallelujah. Something peace-loving patriots of every stripe can get behind. Let’s let those heathen cowards from Dromedary-land try to hide from us now under their burqas or hijabs or whatever. Shove it, iWater. Just you wait and see.
That evening, the nation’s giant defense contractors throw a shindig a stone’s throw from the Senate Office Buildings, and everybody who is anybody shows up. Senators and CEOs. Representatives and governors. Wall Street billionaires and lobbyists—everyone except the country’s foremost expert on water contamination, that guy from the CDC, but he isn’t anybody anybody cares about anyway, so what the heck. Cheers.
Gerald phones the Atlanta offices repeatedly each morning but gets a busy signal. When an administrative assistant answers at week’s end, she says the Water Research Division Head has taken indefinite family sick leave.
“What’s that mean? How long will he be out?”
Gerald walks down the hall to the interdepartmental kitchen and grabs a tall glass from the cupboard. He fills it with cold water straight from the tap. Bottoms up.
ROBERT D. KIRVEL is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net 2016 nominee for fiction and a 2015 ArtPrize winner for creative nonfiction. He has published stories or essays in the UK, New Zealand, and Germany; in translation and anthologies; and in a score of U.S. literary journals, such as Columbia College Literary Review and Arts & Letters. Links to most of his literary publications can by found at twitter.com @Rkirvel.